Artist of the year: James Turrell

A three-museum retrospective of James Turrell's perception-bending manipulations of light emerged as the art event of 2013.

It was “the summer of James Turrell,” said The Economist. A three-museum retrospective of his perception-bending manipulations of light—at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York—emerged as the art event of 2013, with record crowds lining up to experience Turrell’s “viscerally fascinating” installations. His open-to-the-heavens rooms, called Skyspaces, encourage meditations on the shifting colors of the atmosphere overhead. Entering one of his Ganzfeld rooms, where white walls are illuminated by a rotating rainbow of lights, “can feel transcendental, like being transported to an otherworldly dimension.” This year’s “belated burst of celebrity” surely represented validation for the 70-year-old artist, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. He had not had a New York exhibition in decades, and has never enjoyed the widespread recognition of the more collectible artists of his generation. But the art world’s “relative neglect” of Turrell owes much to his reclusiveness. Since 1981, he has toiled incessantly in the Arizona desert on his magnum opus: turning an extinct volcano into a celestial observatory.

Now that the museum masses have found him, Turrell can be credited with doing “more than anyone in history to help us experience light as a pure force,” said Molly Glentzer in the Houston Chronicle. A new vocabulary—“flying dream,” the “thingness of light”—has sprung up to describe encounters with his pieces. His own obsession with the medium began in childhood. Wandering his Southern California neighborhood at night, this son of an aeronautical engineer was fascinated by the colored light thrown off by his neighbors’ television screens. At 16, he began flying airplanes, which sparked a lifelong fascination with the sky. His aesthetic began to coalesce when he was in his mid-20s, as many peers were also aspiring to create art that couldn’t be bought and sold by collectors, said Wil S. Hylton in The New York Times. From the start, Turrell’s light installations have often been ethereal in effect, seeming not only detached from market concerns but “removed from the language of reality.”

Still, what I see most clearly when I look at a Turrell are dollar signs, said Blake Gopnik in Architectural Record. His Aten Reign, the massive ring installation that took over the Guggenheim’s rotunda this June, “cost a fortune to make”—which is typical for a 1 percenter artist like Turrell, who routinely makes custom pieces for the absurdly rich to fund both a plush personal lifestyle and his ambitious Roden Crater project in Arizona. Turrell’s ascension wouldn’t be troubling if he had more to tell us, said Jed Perl in The New Republic. But his work is often pure spectacle, an expression more of “Las Vegas kitsch” than of the sublime. He is, in the end, “a minor poet with the ambitions of a megalomaniac.”

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Give a Turrell installation time, though, and consideration of its cost seems beside the point, said Kara L. Rooney in The Brooklyn Rail. You’re not looking at an object but experiencing an elemental encounter with light and space, and your mood shift—“ecstatic bliss giving way to solemnity, listlessness to contentment”—is integral to Turrell’s achievement. “There is no ‘bang for your buck,’” in the usual sense. Turrell’s work, in fact, “stands alone in its defiance of object-oriented materialism and market appetite.” Perhaps he disappoints some viewers, but surely he has set his compass for the sublime.

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